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Tuesday
Aug012017

Personal Essays and Privacy 

Question of the day: I have written a personal essay and have the chance to have it published. What advice would you give to someone seeking to publish a personal essay?  I am weighing up whether it is worth it. It is a story I want to tell, but will I regret exposing this part of my life? How should I manage my expectations about it?  What should I prepare myself for?

(Quick note: I know that last week, I said I'd address the next steps after first steps - and I will! - but I reached out to some writer friends for thoughts on that post, so in the meantime, I'm answering the above.)

(Second quick note: I'm typing this on my laptop, and the keys are acting wonky. If there are typos, I apologize! I tried to catch them all, but some of these keys are sticking and being super-annoying.)

This is an excellent question, and I think one that every writer has to wrestle with at some point in his or her career. Whether it is with personal essays or interviews or weaving a bit of real life into your fiction. I established rules for myself pretty early on, back when I was a magazine writer and frequently wrote first-person essays or experiences, and that was that I would never write about anyone else other than myself in a negative way and/or without giving that person a heads-up. (Actually, I really can only think of one time I wrote about anyone in a negative way period, and it was a piece detailing a brutal break-up of mine and I changed the name of the ex.) For me, this meant that I was willing to be open and honest with readers about things that I'd gone through but I would never be speaking for someone else.

When my kids were little, I occasionally used them in vague anecdotes, if, say I was writing a piece for Parents but I wasn't laying out anything specific or anything that I thought they'd be uncomfortable with me sharing (if they were old enough to know), and the firm line that I always, always drew was that I wouldn't - and don't - write about my marriage, at least nothing personal or intimate. This was just where I was comfortable cutting off the personal meeting the professional - in that same way that movie stars say they want to keep a bit of something for themselves. Well, that's what I think I can and should keep to myself. In the one instance that I did write about my marriage - last year, I published an essay in Real Simple about an accident I'd been in and how it brought a new dynamic to my relationship with my husband - I checked in with him first.

I guess the advice I can offer is this: once something is out there in the world, you can't get it back. Be sure that you are really, really ok with it. If it is deeply personal and maybe something that you think would embarrass you or more pertinently, embarrass someone else, I would hit pause. I never regretted writing that negative piece about my ex because it wasn't about shaming him...in fact, even phrasing it as "a negative piece about my ex" isn't fair...it was about a catastrophic break-up and the reasons behind it and why I, a normally very strident and confident woman, allowed myself to be somewhat destroyed. So even in that context, it was about me. And I was ok exposing my skeletons because I knew that I had moved past them. If you're still feeling unmoored by said skeletons that you're writing about, I'd tuck your essay away until you have a stronger armor. If you've moved well past the situation and you know that regardless of what people might say about you or to you, in terms of the essay, then publish it. 

I think every writer needs to find his or her own line. What mine is will be different than yours. Just be sure that you have enough clarity and perspective on the subject matter not to reopen old wounds. And not to blindside someone else (IMO) while doing so. 

Reader Comments (2)

Testing to now see if comments work.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Winn

Nadia Bolz-Weber says to share from your scars, not your wounds. I love that. There's a difference between writing about something when you're still living it, when you don't yet understand...and something in your past that you've fully processed and learned from.

August 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKristina Riggle
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